I can see him, walking slowly through the woods, calm, relaxed, slow and dumb. He sniffs the air, nibbles some berries, has a pace-ful walk. From first glance you see little of this creature, almost extinct, a relic of a courageous creature. He seems threatening only in his pure size, but his mind is dim and slow with age. But you are wrong, he is brown bear, all seeing all knowing. He, like our past Indian brothers and sisters, sees the demise of the world, of the way of life we live. He will fight when there is no other course but the wiser of us sees when the fight will incur too many damages. He walks the woods, rarely seen, in his own world, what little is left of it. He can still find a healthily fearful peace amid the hunters and their traps. More importantly he can still find peace amid the humans, encroaching upon the forest, soon to be gone if we are not careful. Soon he will be gone too.
Momaday writes this in a haiku, 5-7-5-7 for five stanzas. It’s melody has a consistent pace, slow and methodical, just like the bear. It focuses on the Jaws of the trap, which the bear has been bitten by, but is still alive. My favorite line by far is “pain slants his withers” you can see his shoulder blades trudging slightly crooked down the path, right leg a little ahead of left. You can see the fear in this bear, but he is still wiser than we realize, for he is still alive. The metaphor here is two-fold, I think the bear is a metaphor for Native Americans, almost wiped out from this world, but still there, growing, ninja in their movements. But I also think the bear’s possible death is a metaphor for the state of the environment. It is impossible to not see his likely extinction as a result of the killing we do to our mother earth. I would like you to picture the bear I painted above, or Momaday’s bear, and then put a man on a quad bike in the picture, either on his trail after him, or on a different trail with the bear observing the man from a distance. What is the bear thinking? What will it do? How does the contrast of the bear and the quad in the forest make you feel?
In N. Scott Momaday’s essay “The Man Made of Words” he says, “Do you see what happens when the imagination is superimposed upon a historical event? It becomes a story. The whole piece becomes more deeply invested with meaning.” (89) What Momaday means here is really quite complicated for us to contextualize. He is saying that the mere facts of history, though important, hold less value to us than they would if they had an emotional connection. When we add some imagination to a historical fact, we add some background frame work to it that lets us humanize it and relate it to more personal experiences.
His larger picture in the essay has to do with words and storytelling. “Language” he says, “is the element in which we think and dream and act.” (83) It is how we can communicate ourselves to the world. Momaday wants us to realize how much more of an impression a story can make on the world rather than plain historical facts. I find the meaning of this to be that we as human are truly invested in our emotional presence in the world. The facts of an event only hold value in that before them and after them there is a much larger story to be told. The death toll of WWII is only important in what more it can tell us. Why do we learn this information, these statistics? It is not taught to us so that we can write the number on paper and think no further on it. It is the story that is important, the dead people’s families, the wives they may have had back home, the children, the parents. What brought them to the war is important, the content of their character, the struggles in their life and the beauty. In the moment of their death, and the events leading up to it, what did they feel? These are the questions we are compelled to listen and learn from, although we learn historical facts it is as a means to know the story behind it all, and further than that to feel some emotion about those stories.
Momaday tells us the story of Arrow Maker, a story passed verbally down through history. Within the story are universal truths, and insights for listeners to make. His paper as a whole talks of Native beliefs on helpers in times of change and on our current need to connect back with the earth in our time of technological revolution. He talks of the stories of his people and the value that those words held. He makes clear that, as this quote outlines, when we use our imagination on the past, on a historical fact, we are able to see more and see deeper. We can pull out more meaning, and this is directly related to the emotional connection we feel to it. As he says, “Man achieves the fullest realization of his humanity in such an art and product of the imagination as literature.” (88) By literature he means storytelling. We are indeed in a time of change in this world and as we look at our history and the histories of others, we should keep a connection with the emotions of those histories and with the emotions within ourselves. We will find much more value and this way as opposed to solely facts.
(I found the essay in the anthology Noting But the Truth, by John L Purdy)